The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 13

February 18, 2021

Previous post: The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 12.

“The Encounter”, a tale from the Tang Dynasty

No author is given here, nor is any citation provided in the bibliography. Furthermore, since the title of this tale is fairly generic and I have no idea how the character names (Chi’ienniang, Chang Ti, Wang Chu) were transliterated, it’s not trivial to just search the web for more information about the story.

I did find someone who went through the trouble of transcribing the story online. It’s not very long, and I recommend reading it yourself if you’re so inclined.

“The Three Hermits” by Count Leo Tolstoy

We’re getting into some heavy hitters late in the collection: this story is by Tolstoy, and coming up we’ve got pieces from Voltaire, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and W. B. Yeats. I don’t know that that’s worth noting. But I’ve gone and noted it. So deal with it.

This tale centers on an Orthodox bishop whose sententious religiosity is shown up by a trio of weirdos living in the Solovetsky Islands. I’m always happy to see bishops getting shown up by weirdos, so it’s a fine story, though not anything to write home about.

“Macario” by B. Traven

I believe this is the longest story in the collection, though it doesn’t read that way. The tale is about a good dude named Macario who just wants to eat a whole friggin’ turkey. Then death shows up and everything goes off the rails.

B. Traven is a fascinating character. From the intro of his Wikipedia article:[1]

B. Traven was the pen name of a presumably German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. One of the few certainties about Traven’s life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film adaptation of the same name won three Academy Awards in 1948.

Virtually every detail of Traven’s life has been disputed and hotly debated. There were many hypotheses on the true identity of B. Traven, some of them wildly fantastic. The person most commonly identified as Traven is Ret Marut, a German stage actor and anarchist who supposedly left Europe for Mexico around 1924 and who had edited an anarchist newspaper in Germany called Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brick Burner). Marut is thought to have operated under the “B. Traven” pseudonym, although no details are known about Marut’s life before 1912, and many hold that “Ret Marut” was in fact also a pseudonym.

Then there’s this story involving John Huston, director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

In 1946, Huston arranged to meet B. Traven at the Bamer Hotel in Mexico City to discuss the details of the filming. However, instead of the writer, an unknown man turned up at the hotel and introduced himself as Hal Croves, a translator from Acapulco and San Antonio. Croves showed an alleged power of attorney from Traven, in which the writer authorized him to decide on everything in connection with the filming of the novel on his behalf. Croves was also present at the next meeting in Acapulco and later, as a technical advisor, on location during the shooting of the film in Mexico in 1947.

Or this tidbit from the concluding list of hypotheses as to B. Traven’s true identity:

B. Traven was an illegitimate son of the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Such a hypothesis was presented by Gerd Heidemann, a reporter from Stern magazine, who claimed that he had obtained this information from Rosa Luján, Hal Croves’ wife. Later, however, the journalist distanced himself from this hypothesis. Heidemann himself compromised himself through his complicity in the falsification of Hitler’s diaries in the 1980s.

B. Traven has been quoted as saying:

An author should have no other biography than his books.

Oooh, them’s fightin’ words in today’s day and age!

Anyway, back to “Macario”. It’s real good. A brief initial search indicated the story was based on a Mexican folk tale, but a little more digging suggests a better candidate: the German folk tale “Godfather Death”. This seems especially likely given B. Traven’s probably German nationality. “Macario” largely follows the synopsis given in that “Godfather Death” article, but I greatly prefer Traven’s telling, which trades up from the fairytale meanness of the folk tale and does much to humanize both the title character and, surprisingly, the figure of Death.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 14.


[1] I particularly enjoy the proliferation of question marks in this article’s infobox.

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 13 - February 18, 2021 - Greg Poulos